The Hidden Cheese Heaven

It could of course just be me. Even though I don’t think so. I am above average interested in cheese and was not aware of the hidden cheese heaven Portugal is. Know they make cheese here, yes, but not so much, and not that so much is from raw milk.

Hail the supermarkets

The supermarkets is full of regional raw milk cheese. Many artisan, though not all. A majority from ewe’s milk and some from cow. Goat is more rare, mostly pasteurized, even though I managed to find one raw. But there are a few blends blends with goat milk.
Ostedisk Portugal
Some of the ewe milk cheese is hard, some is firm to semi firm and quite a few are spoonable.

Portuguese spoonable ewe's milk cheese
Portuguese spoonable ewe’s milk cheese

Ewe’s milk cheese in majority

Portugal seems to be the country where production of ewe’s milk cheese is most widespread. Comes in different sizes, but they’re all rounds. Unless they are treated with oil and paprika powder the rinds are generally of beige color. Hard and non-edible. I do not know if it is a washed rind, it might seem so, but the texture is a bit plasticky.

It is hard to know if the cheese is farmstead, artisanal, cooperative or industrial. Partly because of the language of course, I do not speak portuguese, but it also seems like most of the cheese is consumed locally and therefore there is not so much need for any international sites. I need to do some more research in other words.

The best cow’s milk cheese comes from the Azores

So they make traditional firm cow’s milk cheese as well. And the best comes from the islands, which in this case is the Azores. Quite far into the Atlantic, west of Portugal. Queijo São Jorge DOP is the most famous. Comes in at least two versions; four and seven months of maturity. An alternative is the Topo Queijo curado, also from raw cow’s milk, but without the DOP certification.
I’ll come back to the actual tasting, later.

The hidden cheese heaven

Having explored the portuguese cheese marked for a good week or so, I am very positively surprised and have no doubt this is the hidden cheese heaven. So much excellent cheese, and so readily available.

To drink

I find it natural to drink a white to these cheeses, though not Vinho Verde as they are too crisp, but Duoro and Alentejo whites will work very well. Since we’re in Portugal, Port is a good choice as well. Works well with most cheese.

Crottin de Chavignol fried in bacon fat

Bought a little cheese yesterday. Nothing much, a piece of Brillat-Savarin and a chèvre that we shared between us last night. The Brilliat-Savarin was on my daughter’s demand; excellent as always. On of few pasteurized cheeses I really enjoy. The Chèvre, slightly dry as expected and finely balanced. For breakfast this morning I had it; Crottin de Chavignol fried in bacon fat. What a pleasant surprise. Chèvre is a very friendly cheese to put in the oven, on the grill or as I did, fried in bacon fat in a frying pan. You really should try it.

A twist for the better?

Just as you know, I did not eat it with the bacon, not need for that 🙂 Warm Chèvre expresses quite other flavors than served natural. Of course, the fat added a pleasant note to the cheese. For the better. Not saying the cheese needs it, Crottin de Chavignol is excellent as it is. But every now and then a twist is for the better.

[otw_shortcode_info_box border_type=»bordered» border_style=»bordered» icon_type=»general foundicon-right-arrow»]This goat milk cheese is from the Berry area of the Loire. As with most of these cheeses it tastes quite different fresh and ripe. Becomes drier with storage. Most often it is eaten young when it is moist and has a more tender taste than the stored varieties. The taste is more elegant young but with distinct goat flavor. Also possible to get a blue stain mark when it is stored for more than a month. AOP since 1976.[/otw_shortcode_info_box]On toast

Have it on a toast, you can of course fry the slice of bread in the same fat as the cheese, but it might be a bit hefty. So perhaps better to just put the bread in the toaster, or on the grill.

To drink

With this there is nothing better than a good cup of tea. Assam with a touch of milk. At least if you have the little treat for breakfast. Otherwise a good Sancerre will do. Crottin de Chavignol and Sancerre are from the same area, so that usually works.

Heading for Portugal

We’re heading to Portugal for a few days. And I am going to explore Portuguese cheese. They have quite a few good ones, a lot with DOP (or AOP) protection. I found an article about Portuguese cheese, so I am a bit informed, but I also think I have to do my own field research. Have a few addresses to some good shops in Lisbon especially, but hoping to find something outside of the capital as well.

We’re starting off in Lisbon and ending up there before we’re heading home. In between, a little bit of this and a little bit of that.

Good food

Portugal is a food country. Like Spain food is rustic, not so complicated. Good food and good wine. As simple as that. A cup of coffee and an aguardente. Long lunches.

Bacalhau

Apart from the cheese I am particularly looking forward to having wet salted cod, bacalhau, prepared in numerous ways. They are masters at it. If you’ve never had it, this is the place to try it (in addition to Brazil). It is said that Portuguese men are able to prepare a different dish of Bacalhau for every day of the year. That’s 365 different recipes. Quite a few more than I know.

But I will keep you informed, bring my camera and snap a few fine shots to share with you.
I’ve been to quite a few places around the world, but I’ve never been to Portugal before. Shame really. So if you have any tips on what to do, where, I am more than happy if you share.

To drink

White from the Vinho Verde and others worth exploring, reds from the Duoro and Dao and other local varieties. Port of course. There is a lot of good wine in Portugal at a reasonable price.

Swiss

The Swiss are known for more than their fine watches, high mountains and a few other things such as the Red Cross and clandestine bank accounts. Well the latter seems to be coming to an end. Their cheese stand as strong as ever. Led by a few classics of course, but with quite a few not so known close behind and of no lesser quality.

Swiss = Quality

Switzerland is precision and quality whether it’s about cheese or anything else. So anything Swiss cheese you can trust it is hand made and of the highest quality. It is of course all the mountain cheeses such as Gruyère, Emmentaler, Appenzeller, L’Etivaz and Raclette. But right behind you can find Bündner Bergkäse from the east of Switzerland; Sbrinz from right in the middle; Tessiner Alpkäse from the south east; Tomme Vaudoise, a fine bloomy rind cheese from the south west; Tête de Moine and Vacherin Mont-d’Or from the Swiss side of the Jura. And finally Berner Alp- and Hobelkäse, Vacherin Fribourgeois and many more. Excellent cheeses all of them. And if you have not had them all, well, then you can look forward to many tasteful moments.

Tête-de-Moine (the monk's head), a fine and gentle cheese from the Swiss Jura.
Tête-de-Moine (the monk’s head), a fine and gentle cheese from the Swiss Jura.

Mountain cheeses

Many of these are typical semi firm to firm mountain cheeses, so perhaps you could hold against them they lack variety. But it is not true. They have their blues and they have their soft. Could be they have their Chèvres as well, but that I would not know.

I have tasted quite a few, but not all. One of those that is included in the not tasted yet is the Sbrinz. There is an anecdote about this cheese saying that the Italians crossed the Alps to buy this very special cheese. Finally they got so tired of crossing the mountains, especially during wintertime, that they sat down to copy it. The result being the much more famous Parmagiano Reggiano. That is how it is sometimes, the copy over shadows the original. If it’s a true story or not, I do not know, but the Swiss take great pleasure in telling it.

To drink

White wine mostly. If you think local white, I would suggest Valais. But then you have excellent wine right across the French border as well. Jura is very close, Burgundy is not that far away either, and they pair extremely well.

Abondance

Abondance, this French semi firm favorite of mine. Mountain cheese from the northern part of the Haute-Savoie region, bordering Switzerland. Well, there are two Savoies; Haute-Savoie and Savoie. Upper Savoie and Savoie in other words. Perhaps the most beautiful area of all France, attractive both summer and winter, but definitely most famous for its winter attractions.

Abondance from the Haute-Savoie region of France. Photo: Paolo Rey
Abondance from the Haute-Savoie region of France. Photo: Paolo Rey

Travel the Savoie region

To get around and experience their array of excellent cheese, food and wine in general, summer is the best time of year, though. Look to the right for some more information about Abondance and the region.

A bit of history

The cheese takes it name from the valley and town of the same name. Nothing exceptional in that. In fact very common.
It has been around for quite a while and as is so often the case, it was local monks that started off the whole thing. They worked with the local farmers to create this magnificent cheese. In 1381, Abondance cheese was served up to the papal conclave that met in Avignon to elect the new Pope. This was the moment at which Abondance cheese gained its reputation for excellence which it has maintained ever since. But it took till 1990 before it earned its AOC/PDO. Well deserved, if you ask me.

Farmstead and fruitière

As the yearly output is only about 2400 tons this is not a cheese for the big industrial dairies. Most of the cheese is actually produced on farms, carries a green label, but there a some small artisanal dairies as well, making the cheese, oftentimes called fruitière. These have a red label. All Abondance cheese is hand made, though.

Three breeds

There are just three breeds of cattle that are allowed to deliver the milk for the Abondance cheese. Tarine, or Tarentaise if you like; Montbèliarde and of course Abondance. So Abondance is the name of a cheese, a valley, a town and a cattle breed.

During the summer many of the farms take their cattle to graze in the high mountain pastures, a belt of grassland that winds its way through the mountains. Actually up to almost 1900 meters above sea level.

Abondance facts

Made by raw whole cow milk from the breeds mentioned above. This is a semi firm cheese. Matured for a minimum of 100 days in caves and on spruce planks.
What is so typical for an Abondance is the concave sides of the wheel. A complete wheel weighs 8 to 12 kilos, by the way, so in alpine terms this is a small cheese.

Texture is semi firm with a few small scattered holes and melting with a slightly bitter but fruity flavor; nuts. The color of the rind is amber.

To drink

Local Savoie white wines of course. Chablis. Light and fruity reds such as Beaujolais, but also elegant white Burgundies. You can even try the neighbouring Vin Jaune from the Jura. If you are not familiar with this wine, equip yourself with a back-up.